A Head in the Sand is Not an Ideal Source of Rights.

Whether restricting or expanding rights, we need to be very careful about how and why we do it. Expanding rights feels good, but when we do it because it feels good, it can be hard to stop. Restricting rights might sometimes feel moral or make us seem safer, but if we’re chasing an illusion of security, we may never stop running after it.

Americans have a culture of celebrating their freedom of public discourse by expressing their opinions, through news media, letters to public officials, discussions around the bar and the dinner table, and so on. With all of our focus on discussions, we rarely think critically about the way we discuss. We leap on solitary arguments, but often in isolation of other arguments and often miss larger pictures. This not only makes our debates aimless and fruitless, it makes them potentially dangerous for a common law nation: The more prone we are to accepting a single, isolated point as justification for a policy, the more easily that same isolated point can be applied inappropriately to quasi-related situations. While it seems true that the daily activities of other people don’t have an immediate and pressing effect on us, not all possible rights seem well founded in the principle “let people do what they want.” One reason is that we would be unsatisfied allowing truly unlimited rights for people (unless we are anarchists), but another reason is that other people’s actions actually do affect us. (For more information on this, I recommend the book Rights Talk by Mary Ann Glendon.)

I am inclined to think that the many freedoms of speech and press guaranteed by law in this country are only truly good for society if society uses them responsibly and smartly. It may be that a nation of sloppy, half-thought discourse is worse than government restrictions on public speech.


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